Praying to God to Tune Our Hearts


Spiritual Sunday

There are those who think it an impiety to question God. I find more honest, and true, those people who wrestle with their doubts. That’s why I esteem so highly the poetry of George Herbert, the 17th –century Anglican rector. He is constantly searching for God. In some of his poems he struggles mightily before catching a glimpse of Him/Her. In some it is not clear whether he ever succeeds.

One such poem is “Denial,” where God never makes an overt appearance, despite the poet’s desperate pleading. But the form of the poem suggests that God may be present all the same.

Herbert prays that God will open him up to that he can receive Him: “O cheer and tune my heartless breast.” But his devotion, the poet complains, fails to pierce God’s “silent ears.” As a result, Herbert describes his heart as broken. Rather than focusing on God, his thoughts fly in all directions. He is like a brittle bow, which is designed to send a prayer to heaven but which instead flies apart, chasing other ideas.

Although Herbert spends hours in prayer, his worship appears fruitless: “My heart was in my knee/But no hearing.” “Not hearing,” in fact, is a theme throughout the poem.  The spekaer like an untuned and unstrung instrument, unable to open himself to God’s music. He feels like a frostbitten bloom that hangs feeble and “discontented.” He is numb and lashes out angrily at God for having given humankind a tongue and then not listening:

O that thou shouldn’t give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying!

The brokenness that Herbert feels shows up in the rhyme. Or as he puts it, “Then was my heart broken, as was my verse.” Notice how some of his rhymes are discordant half rhymes (pierce/verse, tongue/long) and that the last line of each stanza doesn’t rhyme at all: “My breast was full of fears/And disorder.” Disorder is the poem’s prevailing emotion.

Until the last stanza. While Herbert doesn’t say that God has shown up, as he does in other poems (say, “The Collar” and “Love(III)”), the final stanza ends, for the first time, with a rhyme:

O cheer and tune my heartless breast;
Defer no time,
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

The effect is of a discordant chord resolving itself into harmony. The poem ends in peace. God has opened Herbert up and entered.

Here’s the poem:


When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

“As good go anywhere,” they say,
“As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.”

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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